Make your own free website on
Edmund Spenser and the Female Image

This is an essay on Edmund Spenser and his poetry, focusing on the issues raised by the quotation below - centrally the matter of female beauty in The Faerie Queene. It was originally submitted to Oxford University's fine Examination Board so try to avoid sending it to them (or anyone else, for that matter) as your own work. It is copyright David Pinching 2001. Footnotes appear at the end of the text.

"But if ye saw that which no eyes can see,
The inward beauty of her lively spright,
Garnished with heavenly guifts of high degree,
Much more then would ye wonder at the sight,
And stand astonished lyke to those which red
Medusaes mazeful head."

One of Spenser's primary concerns in The Faerie Queene is with the creation or "fashioning" of a gentleman: the teaching by example (of heroes' experience) of moral virtues, of Protestant discipline for life through the mediaeval-styled adventure narrative. This was, in this period of its renewed popularity, an androcentric medium (see Sidney's Arcadia for the blueprint of the genre in the time of Elizabeth with a similarly masculine-based image of court-society) and we are not surprised by Spenser's wish to fashion the male courtier and not his lady. Female figures were placed in fact in (often- symbolic) orbit around the masculine heroes of Christian morality. The hero-type is male, and even Britomart, the central figure of chastity in Book III, is sealed within the armoured garb of men - for whom she is regularly and notably mistaken, for instance by Guyon in the first canto of the third book. This maiden warrior was familiar from the prototypes of Tasso's Clorinda and Ariosto's Bradamante, and in the classical model of Virgil's Camilla. Here, however, the armour that protects Britomart physically also shields her femininity.

The predominant image of the virtuous female in Spenser is divided into two central categories: the heroic and mortal beauty (typified by Belphoebe and Britomart after she is made womanly by her relationship with Artegall and in her dream of Isis); and the goddess-like, intangible lady. Gloriana (and other distant symbols of Elizabeth I) is the clearest example of this latter archetypal vision of absolute beauty, but Rosalind, Una and the Elizabeth of Amoretti are portrayed in similar terms. As we shall see, these women are further subdivided (as suggested by the quotation from Epithalamion) by means of the Neoplatonic concept of "inward" beauty as opposed to that which is merely "external". As Spenser's self-consciously Virgilian career pattern reaches its premature close, and his attention turns to romantic and holy love and transcendence in Amoretti, Epithalamion and Fowre Hymnes, the issue of beauty (both earthly and divine) becomes the fulcrum upon which his poetry balances. We will consider the ever-closer bond between "inward beauty" and the "lively spright" in the Spenserian female; the descriptions of their "heavenly guifts" towards the poet's conclusion of the process's very impossibility; and the power of the Medusa-like lady in testing, destroying or allowing transcendence in her male counterparts.

The first and most striking point to note about Spenser's female, relevant throughout the canon of his poetry, is the fact that she has none of the transition from naïve intention of virtue to fulfillment of its ideal which characterizes his male heroes. The female zenith of beauty and righteousness is innate or completely absent, residing either in perceived perfection (Rosalind in The Shepheardes Calender: given greatness in her absence by Colin Clout's courtly love); God-given grace (Gloriana; and Elisa in the "Aprill" eclogue); or beauty symbolic of its internal manifestation (the Britomart-type which is extended to a comprehensive theory in the Fowre Hymnes). Though these types merge on occasion and according to the perspective of the lover, as with the Elizabeth of Amoretti, who is perceived as each of these in turn, they show Spenser's concern for an absolute image of female beauty which may be imitated (Duessa, False Florimell) but never to its detriment or substitution. Una, for example, is unquestioned good. She has not strayed from this moral high ground even as she disappears from the narrative after her betrothal at the close of Book I. The imitation Una of Redcrosse's dream is a sprite created by Morpheus, who tests the knight's holiness, and leaves the lady desolate and wrongly abandoned, and cannot detract from her beauty. On the contrary this allows for Redcrosse's moral improvement and finally his marriage to the true Una with apt poetic justice and parallelism. The sprite's "miscreated", "false", "seeming" and "subtile" (I.ii.3) nature alert us even at this early stage of the poem to Spenser's lexicon for duplicity and counterfeit beauty which warns the reader of solely outward quality. They return in the portrayals of Duessa, False Florimell and Ate.

We note with these characters that there is and can be no transition to righteousness, or unexpected acts of virtue (which we see from, for instance, the Salvage Man of Book VI). Yet, even Britomart is not tested to the point of failure in the consistent method of learning applied to Redcrosse, Guyon, Artegall and so on. Spenser, then, must divide righteous and corrupt women throughout his epic, and beyond, to heavenly and base levels respectively. This fixed state of the female, however, presents the poet with considerable difficulties of characterization and portraiture. The competing interests of Protestantism (restricting beauty and love to human experience) and Neoplatonism (progressive levels of love concluding in the ascendance to heaven itself; Ficino's system of physical and spiritual beauty) force ever-altering methods of description to suit the genre and the individual in question. Just as John Milton is taxed and later condemned by Blake for the wish to physicalize his embodiments of utter good and evil as equally grandiose, so Spenser must portray spiritual beauty through art (even this is a testing issue for the poet as the Bower of Bliss episode suggests).

The Shepheardes Calender is, though, predated by some of the juvenilia, the intended genesis of Spenser's Virgilian career in the appropriate pastoral style. Its characters are predominantly male. A female perspective is absent except in the idealistic image of Rosalind, and in the "heavenly" vision of Elisa in the "Aprill" eclogue. Its medium is largely dialogue and song rather than the introspective concerns of Amoretti or the third person descriptive technique of The Faerie Queene. As such, the portrayal of the female here is limited to the lovelorn adulation of the Petrarchan lover. This takes the form of an indirect sensual impression of the landscape of the pastoral setting as if it takes on the perceived characteristics of the unattainable beloved. Thus, in "Januarye", Colin describes "naked trees" (31) anthropomorphised to a sorrowful externalisation of the lover's pain:

"…clothed with mosse and hoary frost,
Instead of bloosmes, wherwith your buds did flowre:
I see your teares…" (33-5)

Similiarly, "With mourning pyne I, you with pyning mourne" (48) is Colin's reaction to his "feeble flocke". These descriptions which attribute internal emotions to the outside world are intriguing for us since "bloosmes" and flowering "buds" are more typically utilised by Spenser in the portrayal of the naked female body, for instance in Belphoebe's "daintie paps... like young fruit in Maye" (F.Q. II.iii.29) or Elizabeth's "goodly bosome lyke a Strawberry bed... brest lyke lillyes... nipples lyke yong blossomd Jessemynes" (Amoretti, LXIV. 9). Colin's sexual frustration in the unrequited love of Rosalind is therefore substituted for by the feminising of the woodland itself. Indeed, in the "Maye" eclogue, Piers the Protestant preacher demonstrates that (in this pastoral context) these terms are indivisible from base earthly desire: he notes that "in Sommer season... The blossomes of lust to bud did beginne, / And spring forth rankly under his chinne". In a male sense, then, the female imagery may be corrupted by lust. This concept is similar to the numerous attempts at the deflowering of Florimell in third book of The Faerie Queene, where beauty is abused by the base (for instance the fisherman) due to sexual desire born inappropriately from a heavenly vision. This is an erroneous response, and is an alternative denomination of the Medusa-effect of beauty in Epithalamion.

In this usage of floral imagery as a substitute or extension of physical representation, Spenser sets a paradigm for later depictions of the female (generally before she has been introduced as a character beyond mere symbol). He instigates in this way a scheme of appropriate description for the feminine body which implies reverence whilst rendering sights of explicitly erotic natures without debasement of the very object of beauty. It is notable that this method transcends genre, and is to be found in his translations, epic verse and his later love poetry. The effect is consistently the creation of an ideal of womanhood. In The Shepheardes Calender, however, it lacks the implication of internal beauty. This is crucial since, in the "December" eclogue, Colin realises the transitory nature of human life, and the corruption which age brings. Those "bloosmes", representative of fertile femininity reappear but are now "bare and barrein" (105). The death of the year "my hope away dyd wipe" (108) since external beauty in both nature and his beloved is all that Colin is able to perceive. All is therefore transitory, a theme which recurs also in the Complaints volume. This is the intentional limitation of this early rendering of the pastoral female. She is created as a heavenly vision by man and not God, and must therefore lack immortal beauty. As such, the final "Embleme" is left blank as if to imply the death of this form of solely physical devotion; the failure indeed of this love which derives not from the contemplation of the female to reach transcendence (as in Amoretti and Epithalamion) but from a juvenile desire for sexual fulfillment (Colin's naïve mindset is established in the "January" eclogue with the breaking of his "oaten pype" (72)).

Isolated in The Shepheardes Calender is a single fleshy image of the beloved in those terms which Spenser would employ consistently throughout The Faerie Queene and Amoretti. Rosalind is effectively ordained in beauty and feigned royalty in love by Colin: "Tho would I seeke for Queene apples unrype... gaudy Girlonds... To crowne her golden lockes…" ("June", 43-46). As in the depiction of Britomart removing her helmet, hair becomes emblematic of character. In this example, with the loosening of her hair comes the physical realisation of her femininity and consequently her human (rather than ideal-heroic) side. With the symbolic crowning of Rosalind emerges Colin's moribund love as a purely physical obsession; one built around the gratification of the senses; and one which must ultimately fade with the coming of winter.

The "Aprill" eclogue is atypical in that the image of Elisa is one that pre-empts the elevation of Gloriana and other figures of absolute beauty in Spenser (generally analogues of Elizabeth I as confirmed in E.K.'s note here, often in her immortal Body [1] ). Here, Rosalind is cited and yet bettered by the vision of "fayre Elisa, Queene of shepheardes all" (33). There is an clear contrast between the naked "Nymphs" (36) who are solely "dayntye" (an adjective generally reserved in Spenser for great beauty which lacks depths of chaste virtue and "inward beauty"; and tends to be ascribed to the depiction of a lady's delicate features) and the queen herself. Though Elisa is directly associated with flowers and growth ("Redde rose medled with the White yfere" (69); "flowre of Virgins, may she flourish long" (47)), she is devoid of physical description in the sense which we have seen that Rosalind can be. In this way she is elevated to an intangible and yet unquestionably perfect beauty and "grace". This is, of course, distinct from mortal Elizabeth, who was (as McCabe has noted) at the time of the poem's writing being pressured towards marriage which would undermine her position as the untainted "Virgin Queen". Rather than the metonymy used by Spenser to portray the Elizabeth of Amoretti and numerous female characters in The Faerie Queene (their breasts, hair and eyes are singled out to represent the full character, physical and spiritual), we see instead external symbols - in particular the heavenly bodies ("Phoebe", "Phoebus") - which imply a divine origin, and purity of body and mind. Antique terms such as "Yclad" (57) and "depeincten" (70) are integrated within the description to heighten the reader's sense of awe; whilst the rearrangement of word-order from the contemporary norm elevates the imitation of majestic elegance: "Ne durst againe his fyrye face out showe" (77). Further, the apostrophe, "O how art thou dasht" (84), vocalizes the effect of the Petrarchan conceit of the lady outshining the sun.

We see, then, that beauty in The Shepheardes Calender is restricted to an ideal of a distant and unattainable lady. The devotion of Colin does not compensate for the absence of Rosalind from the speaking roles of the pastoral form. The Faerie Queene adds a new moralistic side to beauty, even from the outset, where Una is shown to be both the object of desire and the pure representative of complete beauty. Yet, despite her presence in the narrative, she is a nondescript character whose adventures, similarly to those of Florimell later in the poem, tend to be those of being pursued and being saved. This passivity is not improved by her complete lack of physical description beyond her pale colour representative of chaste purity. Like Elisa, she is formed entirely out of associations: with her "lowly Asse more white then snow"; her "milke white lambe" (I.i.4), so entirely symbolic that it promptly disappears after the fifth stanza never to return; and once again a divine figure, here "Faire Venus" (I.i.48). Even when Una is unveiled by Archimago in the sixth canto, there is a remarkable lack of physical description. Her physiognomy can be perceived only in the reactions to it:

"Then gan her beautie shine, as brightest skye
And burnt his beastly hart t'efforce her chastity" (

Beauty appreciated by the good produces the "astonishment" of the Epithalamion quotation; but in the eyes of jealous evil it results in pain. Yet despite calling Una a "flowre of faith and beauty excellent" (14), and repeating the word "beauty" unusually often [2] , she cannot be depicted physically. It is as if Spenser is unwilling or unable to define Una's beauty. As such she is a somewhat unconvincing heroine: as distant and inconceivable as Gloriana. Even in canto twelve - that of her betrothal to Redcrosse - she remains unrevealed. Finally, she is as much a symbolic and inhuman figure as Rosalind had been previously. Thus we find the familiar floral images returning in her second unveiling: "So faire and fresh, as freshest flowre in May" (I.xii.22). This uncharacteristically bland piece of description is not only repetitive internally but in terms of its inappropriately familiar simile, so reminiscent of the pastoral style Spenser was determined to have left behind. Una is then described precisely by what she and her clothing are not ("withouten spot, or pride" (I.xii.22)). This method of effectively veiling divine beauty originates from the way in which its mystery creates an impression of innocent purity. The prominent early theologian Macrobius's judgement on the subject sums up the very attitude towards beauty which seems to have inspired this vision of the virtuous female in the early stages of The Faerie Queene. He explains, "The wise... know that a naked and open exposition of herself is distasteful to Nature... [who] has also wished her secrets to be treated mythically by the prudent" [3] . Mother Nature, in the Mutabilitie Cantos is hidden "with a veile that wimpled euery where, / Her head and face was hid, that mote to none appeare" ("VII".vii.5). This view seems to permeate the constrictive method of portraiture employed by Spenser in the description of Una and elsewhere.

This technique is in stark contrast to that used for some of the minor personages who appear in the first book, whose physical presence shows Spenser's comparative comfort in describing those of merely plain beauty. Charissa, for instance, has actual flesh beyond the notion her "beauty", clothing and colour. Her body is practical and presented to emphasize her motherly "grace":

"Her necke and breasts were euer open bare,
That ay thereof her babes might sucke their fill;
The rest was all in yellow robes arayed still." (I.x.30)

Spenser seems more content to physically depict his minor characters, but is initially incapable or unwilling to attribute precise features to those he wishes to exhibit perfect chastity and "heavenly" beauty. It is as if, in an effort to avoid the perils of understatement, he must avoid portraiture of the mortal-divine altogether (the oxymoron implicit here is unquestionably part of the problem).

Most interesting in the first two books of The Faerie Queene is the tendency to indulge in extraordinary physical description for characters of blatant or "subtille" evil - notably Duessa. Here we are given the first depiction of solely external beauty that is a temptation to man, but hides a grotesque core. Hers is a "forged beauty" (I.ii.36) and later, consistently a "borrowed" or "spoiled beautie" (I.ii39; II.i.22; IV.i.31). Unlike Una, when Duessa is unrobed, Spenser utilizes a graphic vision of horror to undermine the corrupt female:

"Her craftie head was altogether bald,
And in hate of honorable eld,
Was ouergrowne with scurfe and filthy scald;
Her teeth out of her rotten gummes were feld…" (I.viii.47)

Instead of the careful, sensuous description of, for instance, Belphoebe, Spenser uses a heavy-handed and shockingly detailed description to undermine the previously (falsely) beautiful hag. Not only does this demonstrate registers of appropriate portrayal for the female, but it also makes clear the difference between a (here literally) internal ugliness and an external beauty. As the poet asserts in "In Honour of Beautie": "Beauty is not, as fond men misdeeme, / An outward shew of things, that only seeme" (13). Though in the case of Duessa, the corruption is not due to time but due to sin, the point remains clear: "outward" beauty of the very kind exemplified unintentionally by Una will not suffice. Tellingly, however, at this point, Spenser is unable to describe that beauty which resides inside Una or any other character since he is both tied to physical description or comparison and lacking the consistency of, say, Amoretti's portraits of the beloved. Spenser's female description, then, is somewhat inconsistent in the early stages of The Faerie Queene.

It is perhaps due to this comparative failure that early in Book II he introduces (in fact somewhat prematurely, unusually) female characters in an entirely novel manner. For the first time vocally conscious of the potential failure of his capacity to portray ideal beauty, he asks,

"How shall fraile pen descriue her heauvenly face,
For feare through want of skill her beautie to disgrace?" (II.iii.25)

It is not coincidence, I am sure, that the portrayal of Belphoebe of which this is a part is the longest single description of a character in the poem as a whole. Medina's introduction in the second canto is, however, the first of what will become conventional Spenserian description of the female through synecdoche. Her "gratious womanhood": her symbolic temperance in opposition to the nauseous extremes of her sisters, and simultaneously her beauty, emerge in three lines where previously such an effect if one was to be found would take the somewhat unconvincing forms we have seen already:

"Her golden lockes she roundly did vptye
In breaded tramels, that no looser heares
Did out of order stray about her daintie eares." (II.ii.15)

carefully braided hair (as opposed to that of Duessa, for instance). The tearing of her neat hair (to "tresses torne" (II.ii.27)) during the knight' conflict some stanzas later extends the synecdoche to depict the fact that fighting is essentially intemperate.

Belphoebe's appearance in the following canto is anachronistic since it breaks up the story of Guyon, the knight of temperance, which occurred in Book I only with Una, the hero's companion. As already stated, it is also an exceptionally lengthy description; and contains one of the few half-lines of The Faerie Queene at its precise centre - and given the caution with which the books themselves were constructed, particularly to this point, and also the precision of number and place in Amoretti we can hardly ignore this aberration. Notably, it describes Belphoebe's "golden fringe", one of the consistent aspects of the heavenly chaste female in Spenser from this point onwards. These factors imply not only a structural importance to the passage, but alert the reader to the exemplary beauty and chastity of this particular female figure. All of Spenser's previously-employed techniques are united to produce a single vision of absolute perfection. Predictably, there are a number of references to her apparent divine origin ("heauenly pourtraict of bright Angels hew"); negations in imitation of those applied to Una ("withouten blame or blot"); floral imagery ("her cheekes the vermeill red did shew / Like roses in a bed of lillies shed") and the spring-of-life terms "fresh leaues and blossomes" which recur once again in unison with Medina-like synecdoche in her "yellow lockes crisped, like golden wyre... loosely shed" (here, the hair is free flowing since Belphoebe is an Amazon). Amongst these startling and lavish descriptions emerge, somewhat surprisingly, some of the most sensuous language applied by Spenser to the female until Amoretti: "…when she spake,

Sweet words, like dropping honny she did shed,"

And most explicitly,

"Her daintie paps; which like young fruit in May
Now little gan to swell, and being tide,
Through her thin weed their places only signifide." (II.iii.21-30)

The specificity of this graphic passage levels the portrayal of Belphoebe with the previous contrasting descriptions of Duessa and Error. In terms of lexicon, "paps" here suggests youthful and perfect breasts in opposition to Duessa's "dried dugs... like bladders lacking wind" (I.viii.47) or Error's vile "poisonous dugs" (I.i.15).

Spenser's evident affection for his new Amazon character seems to signal a new confidence in the description of the female. As a result, even before the debauched scenes of Acrasia's Bower of Bliss, the prevalence of naked nymphs and damsels is striking: themselves emblematic of intemperance and resulting in that of Guyon and others such as Atin who upon seeing the "daintie limbes" and "tender hips" (II.v.33) is moved to "deepe delight"(35). It is notable that these "Damzels" are "naked, deckt with many ornaments"(32) such as those worn by Duessa, representative of attempted compensation for a lack of true beauty. This is still not quite in the realm of the dichotomy between internal and external beauty, but is rather an early attempt by Spenser to make extreme the differences between the "godly" and the "wanton". In fact, the ladies' disrespect for their own natural gifts in their adornments is symptomatic of a lack of "inward" greatness; but at this point it is not explicitly stated, but rather implied.

Somewhat surprisingly, the only mentions of "beauty" in the final canto of Book II (the Bower of Bliss episode) are in its negation - and it is replaced inappropriately with "ornaments of Floraes pride". Art here scorns nature ("too lauishly adorne"(II.xii.50)), and the sense is that all the apparent beauty of the scene is in direct juxtaposition to the perfect feminine image we have seen in Belphoebe. Though the language is familiar ("snowy limbes", "dainty parts", "lilly paps" (63-66)), its usage is in an inappropriate and lewd setting, where self-exposure without limit causes Guyon to reject the seeming pleases utterly and destroy the bower. Acrasia's only physical image is that of her "false eyes" (73) which destroy man. They display her perversion of the senses, the artifice which wrecks nature in this place of intemperance. It is relevant that the imitation of Tasso's bird song appears here: once again at the height of apparent beauty and luxury the seeds of ruin are sown. The very same language which is found in the portrayal of the female is reclaimed to remind of the final downfall of physical beauty ("So passeth, in the passing of a day, / Of mortall life the leafe, the bud, the flowre" (75)). In describing intemperance, Spenser therefore realises for the first time the ambition of creating an impression in art of the very extremities of human beauty (there is, as he was doubtless aware, a great irony in this, since these are the same imitations condemned in the bower itself).

It should be noted also that in one of the rare descriptions of Gloriana (too perfect again, perhaps, to depict), in canto nine, we are told of the "beautie of her mind... That is her bountie, and imperiall powre, / Thousand times fairer then her motral hew" (II.ix.3). This is an early example of the "inward beauty" with its gorgon-like power over men - appropriately shown first in an image of Elizabeth. Spenser's continues consciousness of the problem of depicting perfect femininity, though, recurs in the proem to Book III ("through want of words her excellence to marre." (2)). As this now familiar concern suggests, in terms of the argument concerning beauty, Book III represents little but a continuation of familiar themes over new characters and events. In the first canto, Malecasta's lack of restraint is evident in her "wanton eyes"(III.i.41); outward beauty is shown to fade once again ("beautie fades away, / As doth the lilly fresh before the sunny ray" (; and endlessly female characters' external beauty is failed by their lack of inward greatness - for instance Hellenore "Whose beauty doth her bounty far surpasse" as opposed to Cambina in Book IV ("with her beautie bountie did compare" (IV.iii.30)).

Such ideas are only furthered by the beauty contest of Book IV. Here, the parallels with the contest of Cambello and Triamond and their foes demonstrate Spenser's now- increasing conception of beauty as the female equivalent of heroic virtue. The "snowy" Florimell's victory is due to the flawed judgement of mortals. This is the very misconception of beauty based upon the purely superficial which Spenser is reacting so consistently against in The Faerie Queene. False Florimell is not only in herself a counterfeit virgin ideal; but in her description too. Spenser seizes the opportunity to demonstrate the mechanical falsification of beauty by the witch in familiar metonyms which by their tainted similarities expose the weakness of the duplicate and remind of the true beauty of the original:

"In stead of eyes two burning lampes she set
In silver sockets…
In stead of yellow lockes she did deuise
With golden wyre to weave her curled head;
Yet golden wyre was not so yellow thrise
As Florimell's faire haire"

As such, Spenser assures us that mere physical beauty cannot substitute for innate perfection. Though she may convince the base judges of the beauty contest, the righteous man must destroy this typical emblem of man-made (art-like) abomination.

Only with the extreme recriminations of Book V is the sin of false beauty finally isolated and punished - by Artegall, the champion of justice. This demonstrates Spenser's growing concern for his accurate portrayal of spiritual beauty, in strict opposition from that wich is merely superficial. The death of "Snowy" Florimell symbolizes the closure of Spenser's second age in the portrayal of beauty. In the just removal of this forgery, in combination with the destruction of the Bower of Bliss, Spenser rejects the inevitable limitations of artistic recreations of perfect nature. This is entirely in line with the general attitude of the fifth book, which tends towards the firm stance upon the perceived foes of God that derives from the poet's defense Lord Grey's brutal dealings with the Irish (apparent in the Vewe of the present state of Ireland). One suspects that the effect of comparative seclusion in Kilcolman at this stage in his career gave Spenser a degree of distance from the court he had aspired to previously and a willingness to indulge in a somewhat regretful vindictiveness towards enemies of faith and reason. This approach was by no means new in his work and is evident in Prosopopoia's frustration with pretenders to court life who threatened the stability of the nation. Thus beauty in Book V is always tainted: in the case of Radigund by its usage in Artegall's entrapment. Indeed, her features are revealed in a parodic reenactment of that of Britomart in Book IV (it is notable that in that event, physical description was given - once again according to her beautiful golden hair - where here only the bewitching effect is recorded). Indeed, Mercilla's "rare beautie" is "blotted with condition vile and base" (V.ix.38). As such, Book V does away with the previous concern for the graphic physical portrayal of beauty. Spenser seems ever more reticent in displaying feminine virtue in a descriptive manner, or at all. Thus in its final canto, Envy and Detraction's appearances return us to the gore and vulgarity of Error in Book I. Envy's hair, for instance, is "foule" and it hangs "loose and loathsomely" in ghastly opposition to the symbolically beautiful locks of is heroines. This is in stark contrast to the image of Florimell's beautiful "lilly hand" and "diuine perfection" (IV.xii.34) at the close of the previous book. Spenser's delight in physical beauty has therefore openly been transformed into distaste by a concern for the necessary balance between opposites, and thus comprehensiveness, in the epic form.

As such, Book VI, though in certain respects (particularly after canto x) a return to the pastoral world of the Calender, leaves beauty in every sense as a barely-defined "faireness". Briana lacks any physical description; and the "lady" of the second canto is merely "faire" (VI.ii.4). Her beauty lacks reaction, and is therefore irrelevant. Priscilla, in the following canto, is defined only by her tears. Serena too, is only "faire", were we have come to expect lavish description, and "dight / With diuers flowers" (VI.iii.23) which she has been adorned with (recalling Rosalind, in anticipation of the return of Colin Clout). Even when a lady, Blandina, brings a man to his knees, it is by means of his shame, and not the brilliance of her features. In the case of Mirabella, beauty is in fact punished: she must roam the world in retribution for callously attracting mens' attention for her own amusement. Once again, her beauty "gan to bud, and bloosme" (VI.viii.20), but in stark contrast to Belphoebe or Rosalind, its superficial nature means tha t is a utterly negative characteristic. Only with Serena's cruel disrobing among the cannibal Salvage men, is beauty described in physical terms, and here to grim effect where her "golden locks" are torn and her "snowy brests" covered in tears and blood. This is the nadir of beauty's decline as representative ideal of spiritual perfection. It has become by this point something which is abused for personal gain or reduced by the foolish to aspect of lust. This pessimistic viewpoint tells us of Spenser's frustration with the base earthly splendour which had once provided some of his finest descriptive poetry. Not until the poet returns to the pastoral scene looking upon Mount Acidale in canto x is beauty reconfigured as something of delight. Here, as in all his later poetry it is literally heavenly (Venus and the Graces) or a method of attaining heaven (Elizabeth). In this scene, beauty and virtue are unequivocally linked: in the case of the fourth Grace, "beautyfull array... No lese in vertue than beseemes her well" (VI.x.26).

It is, in this way, "heavenle beautie" which pervades the poet's later poetry. The limitations of earthly comeliness, found in the progression of its various portrayals in The Faerie Queene has brought Spenser out of the strictures of the epic and the feigned Virgilean career, through the return of the shepherd-poet hero in Colin Clouts Come Home Again, to the more intimate confines of the sonnet form in Amoretti. In the former, the "beame of beauty sparkled from above"; the flower is now isolated as representing "vertue and pure chastitie"; and blossome "sweet joy and perfect love" (468-70). Beauty is no longer merely a symbol of internal greatness, nor the corrupted aspect of humanity which it had been reduced to previously. Instead it is the "burning lamp of heavens light" whose purpose is now to "enlarge [man's] kynd" (872- 3). However, the continual and ultimately undecided conflict in the poem between ideal and human loves alerts us to the fact that Spenser himself was not at this point at a point of clarity on the matter.

Amoretti emerges from the newly specified appraisal of beauty. The lady here emerges from a distant image of unattainable splendour reminiscent of Rosalind: the cause of captivation. The unrequited love for Elizabeth pains his own "inner part" (II) - but in time elevates him to a state of grace. This occurs by means of the six progressive gradations of love defined by the Renaissance Platonist movement and derived initially from their description by Diotima in the Symposium. This sequence of realisations almost precisely mimics those experienced by Spenser in his own portrayals of beauty as we have noted. In this scheme, the lover sees only physical beauty in the beloved; secondly he realises the "inward beauty" this symbolizes; thirdly he comprehends universal beauty; fourthly he finds heavenly beauty within himself; fifthly he may enter into contemplation of divine beauty; sixthly he achieves union with that heavenly beauty. Perhaps more importantly still than these undeniably influential stages, which are not precisely kept to in the sonnet sequence by any means, is the clear contrast between the Colin-like unfulfilled lover of its first section (which concludes at approximately sonnet LIX with a condemnation of the petty concerns of the flesh alone).

In the context of the pain in the early stages of Amoretti, all the familiar reference points of Spenser's ideal of physical beauty are re-used as if to imply a return to the naïve mindset of his pastoral speakers. From the outset, however, his reticence in imitating the inimitable is evident. In the third sonnet, he seems to summarize his perpetual difficulties in this task, recalling the lack of precise description of, for instance, Gloriana, who despite being the symbolic centre of his epic could never be afforded a description:

"…when my toung would speak her praises dew,
it stopped is with thoughts astonishment:
and when my pen would write her tites true,
it ravisht is with fancies wonderment: (III)

From this perspective it becomes imperative to divulge the true beauties of this new love in the fashion of the many other sonnet sequences of his age and yet beyond the imprecise "Lillies" and "Roses" of Sidney's Astrophil and Stella. In doing so he might express more perfectly the "graceful pitty beauty beautifies" [4] which so inspires this aspect of his poetic imagination. As such, the now-familiar "golden tresses" return as symbol of splendid beauty and are transformed across the divide of romantic success from entrapment ("a net of gold" for "mens frayle eyes, which gaze too bold" (XXXVII) - clearly anticipating the positive Medusa image of Epithalamion). It becomes instead a positive luxuriance in the self-same "fayre tresses" - and the he is "captyved in care"(LXXIII). His transition to "blisse" is further emphasised by use of the second person in this sonnet where in the previous example he had distanced his unattainable lady through the term "She". The subtleties of Spenser's language of the appraisal of beauty is further established by the repetition in the pre- and post-fulfilled stages of a sonnet (XXXV and LXXXIII) exactly but with the substitution of the word "seeing" for "having". In the latter section, to positively look upon the beloved is the aim since this and not the one-sided act of possession will bring about heavenly union. In Epithalamion the beloved's "loose yellow locks" have transmuted from a "net" into a "golden mantle" such that she appears as a "mayden Queene" (9.156-8). The true physical crowning of the beloved, anticipated so much earlier in the Calender, reappears as a unified theme symbolising the journey from Petrarchan lover to the fulfilled husband within the common palette of symbolic words, metaphors and synecdoche. Now these poetic techniques constitute a mesmerising continuity of imagery rather than an inappropriately physical description.

By these means, Spenser reasserts his ability to conceive in a chaste manner the erotic images of "paps like early fruit in May" in Amoretti by assuring us that Elizabeth is "voyd of sinfull vice" (LXXVII). Epithalamion extends this further by constructing a metaphorical altar within that very description of perfection: "all her body like a pallace fayre" (10) in the previous stanza to the final realisation of "inward beauty". By implication, her "unrevealed pleasures" (11) are now open to the lover. In conjugal fulfillment and the concluding aspirations for the "high heavens"(23), the graceful beautifying of beauty is therefore achieved.

My conclusion must thus be found in that of Spenser, whose Hymes confirm his concern for the portrayal of beauty and his new-found certainty has outlasted every other issue. In it resides the earthly manifestation of heavenly purity. He assures us in In Honour of Beautie that "Beautie is not, as fond men misdeeme, / An outward shew of things, that only seeme". In doing so he demonstrates that even his precious, "That golden wyre... Shall turne to dust" and lose its "goodly light" (13). Instead it is the "faire soules" (17) which will be retained, and their symbolic covering lost; what is "inly faire" (33) which may bring about transcendence and in itself be raised up in and by the lover.

Yet, one further retraction remains, in the hymn of Heavenly Beautie. Here, the final blow is give to the artistic portrayal of beauty, which as we have seen he has repeatedly doubted the possibility of throughout his poetry. Rebuffing the earlier hymn (which tellingly remains to be printed none the less - as if to imply that it itself is a stage in his personal ascendance to perfect heavenly love), Spenser bemoans this Sisyphus-like task which has no ending since it can never be complete:

"How then can mortall tongue hope to expresse,
The image of such endlesse perfecnesse?"(15)

Instead, resigned to his flawed, earthly origin and state, he decides: "Enough is me t'admyre so heavenly thing" (34).

In this way his spiritual journey through the depiction of mortal love and beauty is thus made complete in its very rejection. The "inward beauty" which has emerged gradually through his attempts to rein in the description of the ideal female in his poetry has resulted in a "inward ey" (41). The very existence of the chaste heroic lady and the beloved has instilled divine light within the beholder himself. It is through the attempted portrayal of "that which no eyes can see" itself that the poet is able to achieve grace. This, combined with the ultimate joining of mortals in marriage in Epithalamion demonstrates to the reader than the final state of Neoplatonic love has been reached - in divine union through heavenly "wonder" at a heavenly "beauty". Ultimately, there is no need for the description of beauty at all, and yet, throughout his poetry, his successes in creating that very "wonder" had been extraordinary - divine or no.


1. See Kantorowicz, Ernst. H., The King's Two Bodies (Princeton, 1957) for a full treatment of this division between immortal, heavenly queen and her mortal manifestation. Elizabeth I was well aware of these concepts and used them as self-aggrandizing propaganda in a number of her later speeches; and we may safely assume that Spenser too was aware of the theory and is consciously integrating it within this portrait of the queen.

2. Its prevalence here and almost total absence from Book V - with only five mentions in any form in the latter - demonstrates Spenser's differing concerns in the various books of The Faerie Queene

3. Macrobius, In somnium Scipionis (I.ii.17)

4. Sidney, Astrophil and Stella Sonnet 100.